Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Turning Homeless People Into Just Another WiFi Hot Spot

Just when you think humanity can't sink any lower, we go to South by Southwest, or what the people in the know call SXSW, and find they've turned homeless people into WiFi hot spots.

SXSW is annual music, film and social media confab in Austin, Texas where all the cool people go. Which is why I'm not there, but that's another story.
A human WiFi hot spot at SXSW, Austin, Texas

But if you were there, wouldn't you need a quick Internet connection if you wanted to do the things that all those tech savvy SXSW people must do?

Problem solved!   Just cozy up to one of those nice homeless people at the conference with a bit of equipment strapped to them and a t-shirt advertising their 4G availability and fire up your laptop or mobile device or whatever is the hot new techie thing out there now.

How nice, the homeless can help you view that cat playing the piano video on YouTube, or check out that kinky new porn site.

So this is what we've come down to? Hey, those stupid homeless people are just in way. So let's put that detritus to good use and help us further pave the way toward technological revolution.

The organizers of this arrangement say it's helping the homeless by giving them an income. (They suggesst you donate some money to them every time you log on)

The company that organized this, an outfit called BBH New York, said the model for this stems from a practice in some cities of having homeless people work on newspapers and sell them on the streets, so they can make money

According to BBH, the difference is explained this way:

As digital media proliferates, these newspapers face increased pressure. Our hope is to create a modern version of this successful model, offering homeless individuals an opportunity to sell a digital service instead of a material commodity. SxSW Interactive attendees can pay what they like to access 4G networks carried by our homeless collaborators. This service is intended to deliver on the demand for better transit connectivity during the conference.

 A lot of people have problems with this model, though, though, as the Web site BoingBoing points out. the street newspapers were at least largely written by the homeless so it was them selling a product. True, not many people read the papers, but still, it was a product.

In the SXSW homeless hot spot project, the homeless people are just reduced to another utility. No difference between them and say, a modem, a light fixture, a fiber cable. A little dehumanizing, don't you think?

The Read Write Web site makes this point.  "Homeless Hotspots are helpless pieces of privilege-extending human infrastructure," RWW writer Jon Mitchell notes.

The RWW site does note that some of the homeless hotspot guys say that at least the arrangement gives them a chance to meet people and make a few extra bucks. 
Still, as Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite writes in the Washington Post, isn't it dehumanizing to treat homeless people as really just another mechanical service portal?  

What next? Will we turn everyone not rich and tech savvy into a commodity? Will shmucks like you and me get wired up to become some semi-human robot so the Tech Kings can pave the way to their complete on line future?

I'm being facetious, yes, but it's still worth it to point out it's not such a bad thing to keep humans human.

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